On Fantasy Fiction and Medieval Special Operations

Recently I wrote some highlights about a book called Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry by Yuval Noah Harari. As I read it I kept thinking about instances of special operations in my favorite fantasy books, and that led me to wonder about the role of special operations in fantasy fiction.

Harari defines special operations as “a combat operation that is limited to a small area, takes a relatively short span of time, and is conducted by a small force, yet is capable of achieving significant strategic or political results disproportional to the resources invested in it” (p. 1).

For example, he tells of a small group of French soldiers that went on a secret mission in the early 1500s to destroy a single surviving mill that was producing grain for an invading army. The operation was carefully planned and executed in a short span of time; the result was a stunning success. With the mill destroyed, the invaders suffered a severe food shortage and widespread sickness, and eventually returned home in defeat.

It’s worth recognizing that special operations differ from quests. In The Lord of the Rings, Sam and Frodo’s quest to destroy the ring of power in Mount Doom has a few elements of a special operation, but certainly not all. Sam and Frodo constitute a small force that sneaks into Mordor. At one point they disguise themselves as orcs, and the two of them achieve a massively important outcome. But their quest was long and arduous, not a rapid strike covering a small area. (And, I would argue, the cost was great. Not only did they suffer physical and emotional trauma, but Aragorn and the armies of Rohan and Gondor had to expend many lives to distract Sauron long enough for Frodo and Sam to succeed.)

Still, it’s easy to identify instances of special operations in fantasy fiction. I’ve listed a few below that I think satisfy Harari’s criteria. (Warning: spoilers ahead for Harry Potter, Song of Ice and Fire, and Kushiel’s Legacy.)

  • Harry, Ron, and Hermione infiltrate the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. (You could argue this was not a combat operation per se, though for various reasons I would quibble that it was. Harry and his friends were not only the founders of Dumbledore’s Army, but were key players in the Third Wizarding War.)
  • Theon Greyjoy takes Winterfell in a swift, single stroke in A Clash of Kings.
  • A rescue operation occurs at the end of Kushiel’s Dart, the first book in the Kushiel’s Legacy series. The rescue of the character in question is so pivotal that it becomes a central plot point in the second book in the series.
  • FitzChivalry goes on various assassination assignments in The Farseer Trilogy. And of course kidnappings, assassinations, and thefts abound in Brent Weeks’ The Night Angel Trilogy.

What’s interesting from a writing perspective is that studying special operations (especially of the medieval kind) gets you thinking about the technical limitations faced by the characters who must carry them out. Logistics and communication, for example, were complicated, laborious matters in the Middle Ages. Any fantasy fiction novel set in a medieval backdrop has to account for that.

Image from book cover of The Way of Shadows
Cover of the first book in The Night Angel trilogy, which is all about (you guessed it) assassins. Assassinations are one of the types of medieval spec ops that Harari discusses in his book.

The other significant dimension (from a writing standpoint, anyways) is that special operations tend to be exceptionally engaging. Authors can keep readers on the edge of their seats, turning the pages, wondering how things will turn out. Why is this the case?

I think there are at least two reasons. One is the inherent conflict. A special operation by definition implies high stakes, a protagonist, and an antagonist. Who’s going to win?

The other reason is how many variables there are. No matter how well you plan an operation, something can always go wrong to put the characters in grave danger. In fact, usually something does go wrong, and the story becomes all the more engrossing as the reader discovers the fallout. That creates narrative tension of the kind that makes those kinds of stories so thrilling–and so much fun to write.